This post contains course language, vulgarity and sexual references. Some readers may find certain passages offensive and/or distasteful.
SHE WAS A LOVELY PERSON AND FRIEND. But I had wrecked our friendship.
By no means was it intentional, she was more collateral damage than anything. Caught in the wake of my manic behaviour.
Fall, 1997. We were strangers at first. She had answered an ad I posted on the campus bulletin board for a housemate. She came from Hamilton to the University of Waterloo to study psychology. When I showed her the place, she was really friendly, personable. We'll get along just fine.
We did. Until we didn't.
Let's get things straight. None of this was her fault. She wasn't even around when I broke her trust.
She had an infectious laugh. Loud, but happy. She had opinions, but could back them up. She seemed a bit more worldly than her age.
One evening, while she was back in Hamilton for the weekend, I drank a bottle of wine she'd left in the fridge. I didn't think anything of it—I was of the opinion what's mine is yours. When she found out, that was our first fight. We worked things out, but I thought twice about taking liberties like that, especially when we really didn't know each other that well.
One day, she had a friend over, who smoked at the kitchen table. I didn't appreciate that. And I mentioned it to her afterward. I thought it inconsiderate of her to allow her friend to stink up our house. Point taken. She apologized.
We could always forgive. But what I ended up doing, I could understand if she never chose to.
One evening we had a few drinks at Weaver's Arms, a nearby English pub. Dim light, comfy barstools. Lots of different beers on tap. We got to know each other better. Conversation steered itself to the topic of government—how information is suppressed from the public. "Why would the government want to lie to us?" I asked naively.
"Oh, Jeff," she shook her head. Yes, I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, trusting of authority.
I remember when she moved in. I met her mother. They brought me home East Side Mario's for dinner, as I couldn't join them due to football practice. University is such an eye-opener, you can discover yourself, experiment, try new things. Easy to get lost in social opportunities, parties, drinking. I knocked back a few in my day. Binge drank, a lot. She never partied too much, anyway. I think she was too busy with her schoolwork and she went home weekends.
She had a boyfriend, a pro football player. I was a bit surprised she went for the jock type. I was a jock. Not really, though. I liked sports and was good at them, but I never did like the alpha-male-locker-room crap. Dick measuring contests were never my thing.
I had a buddy who visited lots. He ended up moving in a few months later so we could save on rent. She had a friend who hung out with us, too. Took the pressure off us, helped us all become more acquainted. Spread out the conversation.
We started as housemates. We became good friends, even though we had our share of nitpicking disagreements. She got me thinking about spirituality, world religions.
She once told me, "I'm really proud of you, you've come a long way." Or something to that effect. I gave her a ride to Hamilton, I think it was at Christmas break. Zipped along the 401 to Highway 6 into Steeltown in a white '95 Pontiac Sunfire. She invited me into her old drafty Victorian home, a towel at the bottom of the back door to keep out the cold. I sat down at the kitchen table with her. The room was chilly but the feeling was warm; I felt we were good friends.
It hurt a couple years later when she told me not to contact her anymore. I didn't blame her. I blamed a lot of things on myself.
Summer, 1998. We both did pretty well in school. After the academic year finished, she left for Hamilton for summer. She had a year left at Waterloo. I was done, a university graduate. I got accepted to Queen's University for Teachers' College. "Why don't you take over the lease?" I asked her. I can stay here for the summer, get a job and take care of the place for you.
She thought it was a great idea. So did I.
It was a strange thing, finishing school and suddenly having all this time on my hands. Didn't know what to do with myself. I was never good with transitions. Finally done, I celebrated. The summer became a four-month party. I never did get a job. Drank myself away. Started doing some crazy shit. Gambling, drinking, partying. I had started an Amway business. Got some ambitious, grandiose plans. Oh, no, not another manic phase. I had been almost four years without one. Nah, no problem, I can handle it, I can read the signs.
Yeah, right, tough guy.
Combined with drinking, something snapped. Became agitated, didn't sleep. Devised plans for worldwide domination. I'd unite the Chinese diaspora, become Prime Minister, bring the world together in peace and harmony. Thought I was receiving messages from God. I felt perfectly fine. Perfectly fucked up is what I was. But I couldn't see it.
I thought about God a lot. Is he really omnipotent? What if, as Bill Murray asks in Groundhog Day, he's just a dude who's been around a really long time and knows everything?
There was this tree outside our townhouse. I'd watch the ants burrow under it, march, do their thing. Imagined their underground colony. I could smash it, and to them, it'd be an act of God. If ants had insurance companies, that's what they'd call it. Can they even comprehend a being like me? Is God someone we've concocted to make us feel better?
I did some really weird things. Became obsessed with conspiracies, saw things that weren't there; lack of evidence became further proof that I was being watched. A patrol car sat outside our housing complex—I thought they were spying on me. One night, I approached the cruiser and asked the officer, "Everything all right?" She responded with a simple "yep."
Back to the ants. I thought I might be like a god to them. I jerked off inside the house then dumped my jiz all over their colony, thinking I'd fertilize them with my godliness. Blessed the good little ants. My ants. Yeah, I know, super gross.
But I thought it all normal. What the fuck is normal anyway?
There was a time I wandered the streets, in a stolen lab coat from the biology building. I felt like some kind of doctor, or mad scientist in this flowing, white coat. I glided down University Avenue, early morning, when a punk yelled out from across the street.
"Hey! I know you," he said. "You're from the slammer!"
I was wearing detention-centre-issued-blue-slip-on sneakers, like a cheap version of Converse Chuck Taylors, without the laces. I drew images of Wolverine on them, imagined myself a misunderstood, tortured soul. I'm still surprised, to this day, they let me keep those sneakers after getting out.
Wolverine was an obsession of mine back in those days. I'd sketch comic-book poses of him in my spare time, during class, whenever. One night, during a manic episode, I drew a life-sized version of him on our living room wall, among other scribbles and doodles. Thought it a masterpiece, when in reality: detritus of an unhinged mind. My subconscious was telling me something. Something was wrong. I couldn't pinpoint it, but I knew my life was crumbling. Everything I had known was falling apart.
I had worked so hard to rebuild myself after my first manic episode four years previous. I thought I'd recognize the signs of it reappearing. Truth is, it sneaks up on you. Kept telling myself everything is fine. Until it was too late. By then, my house of cards was collapsing. Credit card bills piled up. I took cash advances from one card to cover the debt on others. I gambled. Pro-Line sports lottery was my betting vice of choice. Definitely made the games more interesting to watch. I kept detailed records of all my bets. Just one big payoff was all I needed to get back to even. You know you're in trouble when all you want to do is get back to zero. You know that means you've sunk too far.
Broken glass really hurts when it gets stuck in your hand. There's always a little delay between a shard slicing your skin and when blood starts to run. You just kind of stand there, watching, waiting—and then like clockwork, it spurts.
I don't know what got into me. I'd been drinking, I think. I remember swinging my hand, open palm into the storm-door window. Kicking, screaming. It felt good to cause destruction. Release. I stomped inside, smashed the patio door and kicked around some furniture. Torrent of frustration, I couldn't understand what was happening to me.
Shit, the cops.
I busted out on my rollerblades, skipping out the back door. Flew down the path toward campus. I had this crazy idea that I was on private property, the cops couldn't follow me. That campus security would have "jurisdiction." Feeling safe and sound on a couch in the Campus Centre, I closed my eyes and rested.
Two coppers towered over me. Not good. By then, I was cooperative, but my mind still raced. I think it was obvious to the officers I wasn't all there. They must have been sympathetic and they took me to the psych ward. Oh, no, not the psych ward, again. Wasn't the first time.
Eventually I got out, I was able to play the game, appear normal. I still yearned for excitement. A few days later, I was driving a rented car. I loved the feeling of windows down, wind flowing through my hair, arm outside the window. Forget air conditioning. Natural breeze.
Somebody cut me off. That was enough to set me off. I remember pulling up to the driver, yelling some obscenities. He yelled something back. Big mistake. I burnt rubber and chased him. Aggressively. Weaving in and out of traffic. I scowled with glowering eyes, flared nostrils, psychic death beams. Screamed. The guy backed away. Lucky for him because I don't know what I would've done had he escalated.
I took off down the highway, changing lanes, weaving in and out of traffic. Speeding like a banshee. Like the Millennium Falcon in hyperspace. Like the Enterprise at warp nine.
Like an idiot.
A cop flicked on his cruiser's lights and sirens. In pursuit. I saw him and weighed my options. Don't mess with Johnny Law. I pulled off the highway, near downtown Kitchener. Drove slowly. Thought I was O.J. Simpson for a moment. He pulled up alongside me. I turned my head.
I did. I kept my hands on the steering wheel. Nothing to provoke him. I knew if I cooperated and was respectful, he wouldn't rough me up.
"What were you doing?!"
"I'm sorry officer, I don't know."
He inspected my license and registration. Sobriety test. Had to walk a line.
"This guy's clean," he said. I remember sitting on the curb as he and his partner weighed their options. We struck up a bit of conversation. I began to loosen up. In my manic days, I could talk to anyone. My mind started racing, I started sharing all my ideas. But I wasn't aggressive. I would often speak in puns and riddles. I think I diffused any aggression on their part. Luckily, they seemed to think I was harmless. Other than the fact I was driving like a maniac.
In the squad car, they asked me what I did for a living. I told them I sold Amway.
"I know some guys who do that," one of the cops said.
"Do you wanna buy some shampoo?" I asked.
After that, it kind of all went fuzzy. I remember waking up in a hospital bed. I looked up and saw this beautiful woman, the light danced off her blonde hair like a halo. Are you an angel? She looked genuinely concerned. She was a doctor. Police were there, too. She knew something was off with me, with my mind. They wanted to help. They told me I had two choices: jail or the hospital. Hospital would've been the smart choice. But I couldn't stand the thought of being locked up in a psych ward, again.
So I chose jail. They asked if I was sure. Yes.
I was charged with dangerous driving, along with mischief. The strip search was humiliating.
One day we had a food fight in jail. It was young punks versus older dudes. It got a little crazy. Afterward, I remember calling my dad—somehow the conversation went sideways and I threatened him with mail fraud if he opened my mail.
I still remember one time earlier that summer, before I was thrown in the detention centre. Dad came down to visit. He confronted me about my odd behaviour. We argued, loudly. I got angry very easily in my manic days, easily frustrated when people didn't understand my grandiose plans. One thing led to another, suddenly I screamed at him, threatening to fight him. "You wanna go?! I'll fuckin' kill you!"
That's when my dad retreated to his car. I remember him crying. He was losing me—his son. At the time, I felt powerful and dominant. When I look back, I'm ashamed at the pain I caused. At the thought of bringing sadness, despair to my father.
The only other time I remember him crying was when Grandma—his mom—passed away. I feel so horrible now looking back at my out-of-control mind. How did I become such a monster? I felt powerful, like I had usurped my father, like I was the alpha male. But really, I was the alpha jerk.
There are times now, as a father myself, where I'm at a loss when my kids do mean things or stuff I don't understand. There are times where I've broken down myself, feeling like a failure as a parent. It hurts so much. I feel so bad I hurt my dad like that.
Back to when I smashed up the townhouse. Her name was on the lease, so she lost the place. Two problems: 1) She had to find a new place. 2) She was really upset with me, of course. Why wouldn't she? I was messed up. Combination of mania, drinking, I had lost all sense of reality.
But part of it was freeing. I was so much different than my "normal" personality. Like I had license to be a completely different person. You wouldn't have recognized me: brash, loud, obnoxious, arrogant. I could strike up a conversation with anyone. I had ideas brimming out of my brain. I felt alive, so important, like a genius mad scientist. No one could understand my greatness. My mind couldn't switch off, I never slept, I'd draw up crazy plans to make the world a better place, I'd unite the world in peace. I even thought I might be the second coming of Christ. Sweet Jesus, can you believe that?
Flash forward to the detention centre. I was transported by paddy wagon to the courthouse, handcuffed. One of the officers who escorted me looked like a guy I played Little League with, but I think my mind was playing tricks on me. He led me to a cell where I was locked up, like a rat in a cage. I lay on the bed, where I awaited my court appearance. My glasses had been confiscated, or lost, I can't remember.
What I do remember is staring at the overhead light in a blur and my mind swirled. I had imagined giant sperm cells swimming underneath the light covering. I thought I could make them burst through with my brain and save me from this horrible experience, as if I could begin anew, if I could become a new person, ejaculated into another life, reincarnated. I moaned and sobbed, then imagined the prison guards snickering at my wimpiness. And then this anger, self-pity attacked my very heart. A guard escorted me to the courtroom. I wore only my boxer shorts, varsity football warmup sweater. How embarrassing. For me, for my family, for the team.
I had lost my mind. Again. Help.
I ended up in rehab. It was ordered by the court. I had to complete a program for addicts at the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph.
Being there was hell for me. Because I wasn't there voluntarily. Although it was good for me in the end, to save me from myself. To stabilize. But I felt so wooden. I was given anti-psychotic drugs like Haloperidol. I remember feeling so anxious and shaky, my mind was molasses. I tried writing some thoughts but I could barely hold a pen, my hands felt like a catcher's mitt, clumsy. My handwriting was stiff, slow.
They kept me isolated for the first few days. I would pace and pace like a caged animal. I got frustrated and yelled. They broke me. Maybe I broke myself. One time, I kept ramming my head into a concrete wall, just to see if I had any feeling left. Eventually, I realized I had to play by their rules before I could be released into the general inmate, I mean, patient population.
I thought about the pain I had caused to my friends. My family. And then this intense shame, guilt overcame me. This wave of negative energy sunk its claws into my heart and wrapped its tendrils around everything that was good, pure, beautiful. Malignant. Magnificent in its intensity. This darkness told me I had to punish myself. And I believed it, with all my might, as much as I tried to fight, the more I did, the dark energy intensified its grip.
It took me two months to complete the 30-day program, and was remanded to my parents' custody in Ottawa, where I'd get my life back together. I was put on probation and had to stay sober.
Homewood Health Centre: Discharge plan and patient instruction [excerpt]
Date of Discharge: October 15, 1998
- Diagnoses at Discharge: Alcohol dependent/moderately improved
- Medication at Discharge: Lithium, 600 mg O.D. 0800hrs; Lithium, 750 mg O.D. 2100hrs
- Planning for Post Discharge Needs:
- Psychiatric aftercare, medical appointments, lab, other testing: Monitor lithium with own physician
- Expected patient plans and goals after discharge: 90/90 meetings [Alcoholics Anonymous]; aftercare at Ottawa Hospital; find volunteer work; live by newly learned structured day
- Dietary and/or Other Instructions/Teaching: All med. teaching was done with Jeff. Jeff was encouraged to keep structure in his day to include daily: walks, meditation, meetings, journalling & leisure time
I felt helpless. I had been accepted to Teacher's College at Queen's University in Kingston. I was in no shape to attend. I pleaded to have my acceptance delayed for a year. I was in no shape to write a letter. Near the start of my hospital stay, my dad, God bless him, wrote one for me. He also had a psychiatrist who I had seen earlier write one, too.
Faculty of Education
Duncan McArthur Hall
Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6
August 22, 1998
Dear Ms. P,
RE: MR JEFFERY SHIAU
This is to confirm the letter by mister Shiau's father, that he has been admitted to hospital. Mr. Shiau is in my care, is well known to me, was last seen by me on August 14, 1998 and was referred by me to hospital. His hospital stay will last at least one month and may go longer. I do not expect that he will be able to resume his classes immediately after his discharge from hospital.
Therefore it may be advisable for the university to grant him leave of absence, and permission to resume his studies in the next academic year... I trust this information is of value.
Queen's gave up my spot. I was free to apply the next year though. I did, but I wasn't accepted. Devastated. My life had fallen apart. I had so much invested in achievement, in getting those gold stars, I didn't know how to deal with failure. I was lost. Some friends left, abandoned me. Maybe it was me who abandoned them.
She was my friend. I had irreparably damaged our friendship. Or so I thought. It took a long time, but years and a few tries later, something wonderful happened.
My first attempts at reconciliation were clumsy. Things were probably too fresh in her heart to forgive. But I tried. A year or so after rehab, I wrote a letter. I tried calling. Understandably, she asked me not to contact her again. But she did find it in her heart to wish me well. My heart ached, I couldn't seem to live with the thought of having caused pain and suffering to others. It weighed on me over the years. So many things do, to this day, to everyone I told off, disrespected. I didn't know what I was doing back then. It's not an excuse, but simply an explanation. My mind was chemically imbalanced.
The hardest thing was forgiving myself. I couldn't move forward without caring and loving myself. After years of self-hatred and doubt, of not believing in myself, this was the hardest step to take. Bit by bit I began to emerge. Writing helped. Writing was and is my saviour. A way to explore. Through writing, I started to become whole. To look back at my life and my memories. To accept responsibility for my mistakes, shortcomings and reach out to the people I have hurt. After 15-plus years, I decided to reach out to her, again. This time, things were different. We both had the benefit of experience. Of having lived longer.
I looked her up on the internet and found an email address in 2014. So I reached out. So glad I did. I can't explain the feeling that overcame me when she responded. I told her I simply recognized her as an important influence in my life and that she helped me grow as a person. I shared an article I wrote about being a stay-at-home dad and the love I felt for my family.
She told me when I reached out all those years ago to make amends, she wasn't at a place in her life to be as compassionate as she wished. And that she was touched, honoured and humbled that I would once again reach out to her.
What an amazing thing. She was honoured! Well, hot diggity-dog, I was honoured! This is what reconciliation, forgiveness and honesty can do. Bring people closer, dissolve animosities. Heal.
We continued to keep in touch off and on. She told me how she ended up marrying, having children, separating from her husband, going through very dark times herself. She became a therapist and helps people deal with trauma and addiction, to become better versions of themselves.
At that point, around 2017, I was freelancing: building websites and writing web copy for small business owners. "Well, I need help with my website," she said, and I took her on as a client. To this day in 2019, we're still working together.
I'm so grateful my friend found it in her heart to forgive me. She's an amazing and special person. When I broke her trust I was 24. Today I'm 45. That's almost half a lifetime ago. "We were so young back then," she once told me on the phone. We knew what we were doing but we didn't.
I often think about the old townhouse we shared, and that first day we met when she brought me some leftovers from East Side Mario's. Of the time we spent chatting in the dim light of Weaver's Arms pub.
I think of the conversations we shared about religion and spirituality. Of spending time together at the kitchen table with our other housemate, who I remain estranged with, to this day.
I think of the love she has found in her heart to forgive me. I am blessed. And I am so grateful for this gift she has given me. Forgiveness is a powerful thing.
She is a lovely person and friend.